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Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Putting a perspective on reviews

Every so often the internet explodes when an author - self-published or trad - throws their toys out of the cot at a reviewer. Usually the backlash is like watch a train-wreck; hypnotically awful. I'm not going to link to it because once it turns into a blood-sport it makes me queasy, but googling "authors behaving badly" will throw up enough results to get you through a large bucket of popcorn.

Here's the thing though: authors invest time, effort and love in our work. No matter what anyone else thinks of it  when it's done, the creating part (let's not even get started on editing, which just plain hurts) comes from a pretty visceral, emotive place.
Once we put it out there though, it becomes a product, and too many authors forget that. The average reader doesn't care that you wrote your first draft by candlelight at 3a.m in the middle of winter. The average reader sees a product, and either likes, loves it, or loathes it. (Every now and then you get "meh" instead, which is worse.)

This is a product. This is something that you hope people will buy (maybe even enough to get your coffee fix for the month) and if they like it enough they'll buy more of your stuff. If they like it, hopefully they leave good reviews. Even better, hopefully they recommend it.

If they don't like your stuff, a buyer of your product is entitled to leave a bad review. 

By bad review, I'm not talking about the incoherent ramblings that scatter some websites and pages: anyone with an ounce of common sense will look at them and wonder if they could get hold of whatever narcotic was in the water supply that day. I've had one of those - sadly, it disappeared before I could decipher it, although I do remember a lot of references to "dude" in the middle of  things.
I'm not talking about three star reviews either, which to me come down pretty evenly as didn't love/didn't hate it, and often give more balanced feedback.

Reviews that give a one or two star rating because of the price, or because they didn't check to see the length of the book, or because they tried something totally outside their normal genre and hated it can be pretty safely discounted as well (and don't scream about them pulling the star rankings down - I know. Report it if it's unfair, and move swiftly on. Most folks aren't that stupid and those reviews will be treated with a grain of salt at the very least.)

But if you get a bad review that states clearly why the reader doesn't like your book, what the issues were, and most importantly, that the reader obviously actually read the thing - they've done you a favour. Take a step away from the emotional "OMG my BAAAABY just got trampled!!" response. This is no longer your baby. This is a product, getting feedback from a customer, and if their issues and points are valid, listen to what they say.

In other words, listen to your customers.

Some things you can fix. Things like formatting issues, which are still a major bug-bear for me in my own books (I've lost track of how many times I've re-formatted WolfSong - this weekend marks yet another slog at it). Spelling errors or incorrect words might be common through every form of book, whether traditional or self-published, but if your readers notice and mention it, try to fix it. Continuity issues like sudden name changes or spelling changes, missing pages - these can all be fixed, and if your customers don't complain about it, you will carry on happily doing the same thing over and over again, and wondering where the hell your sales went.
They went to the authors who listen to their customers.

The best feedback I've had have come from the folks who point out the rough patches and the issues. I had an awesome discussion on Good-Reads with someone who was not a fan of WolfSong a while ago.There were parts of the books he just didn't like, he wasn't crazy about the P.O.V., and he entertained the hell out of me trying to guess the resolution that's coming up in the second book. He gave me three stars (which I thought was pretty cool since like I said, he wasn't really into the book), great detailed feedback, and I loved our discussion. (He's also a pretty sharp writer himself, with a wicked sense of humour and the absurd that comes across pretty clearly in his work.)

If the review is on an independent review site, you're even more likely to get well-reasoned and fair reviews; so if the issues raised are technical or parts of your writing you can fix, say thanks for the review and fix what needs to be done. Review bloggers aren't paid to write reviews. They do it because they love books, and they don't deserve anyone being precious over their opinions. Because that's what a review is - an opinion. They're as entitled to it as anyone else, and these folks - repeat after me - are reviewing your product.

Some things you can't fix. If the issue is with the plot, the characters, the story as a whole or simply your writing style - short of re-writing the entire thing that's not going to change. This is a good thing. If everyone wrote the same story, with the same characters, in the same style, the world would be sad and grey little place. So you can't fix that, nor should you want to. Here's the kicker: the reviewer's opinion is still valid. If they don't like your stuff, a buyer of your product is entitled to leave a bad review.

Good reviews are great. They soothe the ego, brighten up the day, make you bounce a little. They don't necessarily sell books. I'm not sure of the negative impact of bad reviews, to be honest; there's a whole bunch of folks who claim not to read reviews at all before they read a book. But bad reviews or low stars are just the flip side of the ego coin; unless you pay attention to your customers.

I've watched a few authors melt down on forum boards, or get a bunch of folks in on the "Stone the Reviewer" game. A nasty review is going to hurt. But do you seriously think that other business owners - let's use Richard Branson as an example here - do you seriously think Richard cries into his coffee when a customer complains? Does Richard call upon the power of all loyal Virgin customers to bombard the complainant with ridicule and down-votes? Does Richard point a quavering finger via the internet and whimper that he's a victim and nobody understands what he's trying to achieve? I'm fairly sure he doesn't. (If he does, feel free to send me proof).
Richard Branson is a business-man, with a brand. Richard sells products. Richard does not cry over them, bully reviewers or drum-up witch hunts when a passenger on the Virgin service from London to Glasgow has a problem with the service.

In other words, authors need to put on their big-girl (or boy, if we need to be PC) panties, listen to customers, and stop harassing reviewers if their ego doesn't get stoked enough. Come up with the best product you can, put it out there, and stop assuming that reviews are personal attacks, because otherwise you're going to devolve into someone rocking gently under their keyboard with a fairly large dose of medication.

Your books are a business once you publish them. Your writing is a product. Treat it like one.

J H Sked is the author of WolfSongBasement Blues and Die Laughing, all of which are on Amazon and enrolled in the Kindle lending programme.